Sunday, November 11, 2007

Exploring Where Art And Science Converge‏ - Notes from the Symposium that I Attended Today

Dear Children,
Long ago, art and science were linked in the human imagination. It was perfectly natural for thinking people to study what we now call science and what we now call art.

It was an essential part of a liberal education, and if one wanted to be a citizen or a "gentleman," both were required. Now, if we discover an artist with scientific interests or a scientist with artistic talent, we treat them like sideshow freaks. Or we refer to them as "renaissance" men and women, to put them in a quaint, old-fashioned, conceptual box. Leonardo da Vinci, a man who worked as a scientist and an artist, is now regarded as both marvelously intelligent and profoundly weird.

Today, for the most part, someone is either a scientist or an artist. Students taking a BFA in art and design at the University of Alberta are obliged to take one or two classes in each of their four years, as faculty of arts options or faculty of science options. Very few of them choose physics over art history or philosophy. Why would they? The same is true of similar artistic programs, in music and creative writing and film production, in universities across Canada.

Those in science can graduate with as few as six faculty of arts classes. Honours science students can take even fewer "options." Classes in the faculty of fine arts, or in disciplines such as creative writing, are scant and selective, and therefore difficult to take. So science students generally stay away from art, in all its incarnations, and vice versa. It isn't just institutional. We all reinforce these separations. I have a friend doing postgraduate work in immunology who also reads literature voraciously and attends the Venice Biennal; I have caught myself bragging about him, my friend, as though he were an odd trophy I have acquired.

In recent years, scientific research has been the engine of academic growth, especially in Alberta. Art, and related critical disciplines such as the humanities and social science, have suffered economically and in terms of social status.

So the Art and Science Symposium, at Bernard Snell Hall in the U of A Hospital this Friday and Saturday, is a uniquely thrilling event. The symposium, part of the Edmonton Cultural Capital program, is exploring "the places where art and science converge." A number of fascinating speakers, artists and scientists who cross disciplines like Alan Bleakley, Jim Ruxton, Camille Turner and Jeffrey Burns, will join local art-and-science collaborators in a number of panels. The keynote speaker, Friday at 10 a.m., is best selling American novelist and physicist Alan Lightman.

Peter Hackett, president and CEO of Alberta Ingenuity, a billion-dollar fund to help transform the province into a global scientific and engineering centre of excellence, thinks the connection between art and science is obvious.

"At the core of both are creativity and struggling at the frontiers of things," says Hackett, who has a PhD in petrochemistry from the University of Southampton and has published hundreds of papers and patents. "Scientists and artists are engaged with the big transcendental issues, truth and beauty, trying to change the world, to explain, to translate. And in both disciplines, the best people are often not supported by the status quo."
With Love, Amma-Naana